Yesterday, my husband and I were walking our dog around the neighborhood when we bumped into another resident and started chatting about various local happenings. When the subject of Light City Baltimore came up, our neighbor commented that he was absolutely blown away by the event. I expected him to follow up by emphasizing the beauty or scale of the light installations, but instead he said: “I’ve never seen so many happy people in one place.”
Since then, I’ve been pondering the significance of this statement and how much is resonates with my own experience of Light City—and how much it can inform museums and what they offer to their communities.
My husband and I went to Light City on Tuesday night after having a disagreement earlier that afternoon. Since the evening had been soured, it seemed like an odd choice to go out into a crowd of people; however, it ended up being the perfect choice. It got us out of the house and talking again on friendly terms. And as much as we both hate crowds, it made us feel connected. We turned on the red safety light on our dog’s collar and laughed with satisfaction when several people commented that he was the best light installation of the night.
As museums have changed “from being about something to being for somebody” (for more info, read the article by Stephen E. Weil of the same name), they’ve also become increasingly about being “with” the people they serve. Light City is a beautiful illustration of this principle in action. The power and connective potential of Light City Baltimore would be absolutely nothing without the large crowds of people who attended and the positive energy they brought. Specifically, the experience of being surrounded by happy people is what makes the festival impactful.
So the next question for me becomes the following: How do we bring people to our museums and how do we make them happy while they visit? Here are some theories on why Light City does these two things so successfully:
- It’s free.
- It’s embedded in people’s everyday experiences and locales (the Inner Harbor being central and familiar)—so it’s welcoming and comfortable.
- It’s part of the community’s narrative and identity. (It belongs to Baltimore, not to its organizers, the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts. In fact, the Light City website contains very little trace of BOPA and its brand. Light City is also inherently participatory; and other local institutions and businesses are free to create their own related programming and displays.)
- It’s transformative (in that it physically changes the landscape of the city).
I’d love to think more about how some of these characteristics can be transferred to museum programs and experiences. I think it would be wonderful to hear a visitor say (in addition to or even instead of “The artifacts/artworks were interesting.”) “I’ve never seen so many happy people in one place.”